This article contains a description of sexual violence.
Growing up trans in the restive Kashmir Valley, teenage Shoaib was faced with a choice she seemed predestined to face: to become a matchmaker or wedding singer.
Decades of conflict in Kashmir — a Muslim-majority region administered by India and claimed by Pakistan — have adversely impacted almost all walks of life and exacerbated the vulnerability of the transgender community. Trans youth face hostility and financial precarity, and many have been forced to leave school early, one of the biggest stumbling blocks to their upward social mobility. Most follow their peers into the only professions the Kashmiri society sees fit for them: matchmaking and performing at weddings.
But Shoaib wasn’t ready to conform. She didn’t want to become a wedding singer, she wanted a stable and well-paying job, and for this, she had to continue her studies.
Kashmiri trans people form a small community in the valley, estimated to consist of 4137 individuals among Jammu and Kashmir’s 12 million residents, as per the latest census that was carried out in 2011. Activists and community members estimate that the numbers are much higher, as many people are reluctant to identify themselves as trans, fearing societal discrimination and its repercussions.
Today, 29-year-old Shoaib has a master’s degree in business administration and a job in a multinational corporation in India’s capital New Delhi, a job that has given her financial independence and the freedom to live as she chooses.
HOLDING ON TO EDUCATION
Shoaib recalls that for her, the lines between genders blurred early on. Her family and community, including her fairly conservative father, a Muslim cleric, noticed her gender fluidity. She was derided as “laanch,” Kashmiri slang for trans people, by her peers and teachers.
“I had no idea what gender really meant,” she said of her early childhood. In her adolescence, she was “told that my parents would oust me if they came to know about my gender identity. So I kept pretending.” But she couldn’t hide her true self for long; society wouldn’t let her. When she was in the eighth standard, a neighbor told her father, the Quranic teacher, that “there was something wrong” with her. At about the same time, Shoaib’s mother discovered her journal where she had described her attraction to a boy her age. Her family took her to an endocrinologist specializing in hormones at a prominent hospital in Srinagar for a medical checkup, “as if my behavior was an illness.”
There, Shoaib said the doctor took one look at her and asked her parents to leave the room. With the doors shut, the doctor asked her if she masturbated, to which she responded in the negative. “He then made me perform oral sex on him before writing the report,” she said. Trans people face violence in all areas of life, including at the hands of authorities. While there is no data tracking the violence, many community members attest to similarly traumatic experiences.
Following the assault, the doctor completed the report, which declared that “secondary sexual characters were not developed at the age of puberty.”
Shoaib said the documentation “liberated” her as she no longer had to pretend to be a man in front of her own family, but it worsened her relationship with her relatives.
In most parts of South Asia, a culture of collective shaming still prevails. Her parents stopped paying for her expenses and often denied her food. “They still continued pretending in front of other people that I was a man,” said Shoaib.
Shoaib persisted and finished high school, after which she began tutoring children in her neighborhood, a job that would earn her a meager 2,000 rupees per month, approximately $27. “It was my first job,” she said. “I would buy food for myself with that money.”
In 2011, Shoaib enrolled in a government-run college to pursue an undergraduate degree. Her father reluctantly sponsored her education, accusing her of wanting the money to buy drugs, another stereotype associated with trans people.
In 2014, she secured admission to a master’s course at the region’s largest university, Kashmir University. After completing her degree, Shoaib was lucky to secure a job in a domestic airline and worked there for the next four years.
Trans youth show eagerness in pursuing education, said Aijaz Bund, a Srinagar-based LGBTQI rights activist who heads a local nonprofit called Sonzal Welfare Trust that works for the welfare of Kashmiri trans people. But, according to data collected by Sonzal, about 95% of trans people couldn’t complete their high school education; they are either forced to drop out when their gender identity becomes apparent or succumb to relentless abuses.
“Not receiving an education is discrimination and they have [internalized] it now. Most of them think that they are not able to get educated because they deserve it,” said Bund. “Eventually they don’t remain eligible for white-collar jobs.” It was only education that could empower transgender people and help them break free from the cycle of daily violence, said Bund. “First, they will get to know about their rights and will also open the possibility of securing a decent livelihood,” he said. For Shoaib at least, education made it possible for her to live a life that she didn’t think was possible. “If I had given up on education, I would have been in the grave by now,” she said, referring to her parent’s house in Kashmir. “I couldn’t even breathe, laugh or live openly, let alone the idea of going ahead with the gender confirmation process.”
A DIFFICULT JOURNEY
In 2014, India’s Supreme Court recognized transgender people as the “third gender.” “It is the right of every human being to choose their gender,” it noted and ordered the government to provide trans people with quotas in jobs and education in line with other minority groups. The regional government in Jammu and Kashmir also took up the matter after pressure from rights groups. However, gaining official recognition as a third gender is not only a lengthy process but one riddled with serious flaws.
In order to be recognized as an Indian citizen, one needs to have an Aadhar card, which is like a social security number. However, since many trans people are ousted by their families, they lack even the basic birth certificates to get their documentation.
“Education is essential for people of our community.”
Other barriers to accessing official recognition include the lack of education that makes such government regulations illegible. Second, the clause of obtaining a certificate after examination by a physician and a psychologist subjects the community to further stigmatization. Even when trans people are able to access identity cards, such recognition does nothing to combat the social stigma and rigid norms that weigh on the community.
“Coming out” in Kashmir hasn’t always proven to be empowering for the community, said Bund.
A NEW LIFE
Ultimately, one of Shoaib’s most consequential decisions was to move to India’s capital city New Delhi. In 2020, she was hired as a Senior Quality Analyst by a global information technology company and received a significant hike in her previous salary. Buoyed, she finally confronted her parents and asserted her gender identity. “I told them that I wasn’t a man,” she said. Starting a new life in New Delhi, one of the world’s most populous metropolises, Shoaib was finally able to own her gender identity, away from the watchful eyes of her family and her intrusive neighbors. She makes about 52,000 rupees or approximately $652 a month, a modest income by Indian standards, and rents her own place.
Her financial independence also helped her access medical interventions to continue her transition. After seven years of working, she was able to save up two million rupees, approximately $25,550, for gender confirmation surgery. But her financial independence couldn’t bring her close to her family at this momentous juncture. “Even then, I was completely alone in the hospital during the surgery,” said Shoaib, who chose to keep her birth name, a reminder of her years of agony but also perseverance. “My name is not confined to any gender.”
A year after her surgery, Shoab said “I feel like this is a new life.”
EDUCATION IS ESSENTIAL
In November 2022, Kashmir’s most prominent trans icon died of cancer at the age of 56. She was known by her stage name Reshma, but also used her birth name Abdul Rasheed. It was a shock for the region’s trans community, who had looked up to her for visibilizing and normalizing the community’s existence. She were easily the most recognized and respected trans person in Kashmir.
At an early age, when Reshma’s family began to realize she was not a boy; she was soon made to quit school. Reshma was in the 5th grade. “I immediately said yes without realizing how important education was. I wasn’t forced,” she said. Growing up, she had wished to be a woman but due to the lack of acceptance from their family and no education, Reshma thought the best way to be a woman would be by dressing up as a woman, and hence, she started performing at Kashmiri weddings. “Being a child, I always wanted to become a woman,” she had told me in an interview early last year, “but that wasn’t possible for me in reality. Now I no longer think of it.”
Reshma believed that like many other trans people, if she had not dropped out of school, her life could have taken a different course. “Today many trans persons are working in different fields but we couldn’t do that. Even today they are harassed but at least they are strong enough to fight,” she said. “Education is essential for people of our community.”
Zenaira Bakhsh is a journalist who covers gender, human rights, and culture.